Tales From The Playa are dreams and memories of events that took place at Burning Man, as told by its participants.
by Spun Lepton
The sun has been up for only a few hours as you and yours drive your van out on to the playa. The vehicle kicks up dust that stings your nose. Somebody says to a fellow passenger, “Roll up your window.” It’s a shared sentiment.
This is your first time at Burning Man and you’re giddy. The greeters at the entrance pull you out of your van and hug you. One of them slaps you on the ass. How’s that for a welcome? They tell you to roll around on the ground and get playa dust all over yourself. At first you resist, but then you feel an urge to get into the spirit of the place, so you give in.
You arrive at your campsite. Your campmates, your family for the week, jump out of their vehicles and begin putting together the dome and shade structures. They’ve been here plenty of times before, so you follow their lead. The sun is so bright and hot that it burns through your shirt. Within a few hours the camp is set up and functional. You’re told to drink more water, so you fill your stomach with it. It’s uncomfortable, but you resign yourself to it, as you know it’s necessary.
Night falls and the chill arrives. Everybody puts on their evening wear and heads to an opening day celebration. After a few drinks, some of you break off from the larger group to visit The Man. He’s so much more mundane than you had anticipated. Later, the mixture of alcohol and exhaustion drives you to hunt down your tent for some rest.
Fuck, it’s hot. The early morning chill gives way to heat within a matter of minutes and turns your tent into an oven. Opening the flaps encourages a light breeze, but it’s not enough to allow you any more sleep. Nature has decided it’s time for you to get up. Besides that, you have to take a wicked piss. You slather on your sunblock and enter the daylight.
You’re taking the Porta-Potties for granted. You don’t realize it now, but by the end of the week you’ll be doing your I-have-to-go-pee-pee dance while waiting in line. Today, however, you get in quickly and do your business. The sanitary wash dispensers are empty. Gross.
This is it, huh? This is the event your friends have been gushing about for years, eh? You knew camping in the desert wasn’t going to be all that exciting. It was going to be hot, dry, dusty, and uncomfortable. It actually kind of sucks.
You sit around the camp and read through the booklet of daily events. A couple of the events jump out at you and you make note of their times. You soon realize, though, that you and yours aren’t wearing watches.
“What time is it?”
Bloody hangnails have already formed on many of your fingers. Ouch.
Night hits and you put on your heavier clothes. Tonight is a night for exploration. Your group jumps on their bikes and ride around the city. On your way to Dance Dance Immolation one of your group is hit by a poorly lit car and thrown to the ground. She’s all right, she can stand and walk, but her evening is over. The group splits so some can lead her home to rest.
Yeah, this event is great. You’re not even here two full days and somebody gets injured. Fucking awesome.
Somebody is excited to see something called The Serpent Mother. It’s a giant burning snake, and it makes you think, “Whoa, that’s pretty fucking cool.” You look over at The Man. He waits, calmly anticipating the weekend. He looks so much smaller than you had envisioned him. The glowing neon is nice, though.
You’re still not feeling the vibe and energy of the playa. You’re out of touch. You’re a fucking noob. While many of yours seem to have already gotten into the spirit of the event, you remain an outsider. You’re alone. You become depressed. You wander off on your own to do some brief exploring, stopping at the Porta-Potties so often that it becomes a nuisance. And the sanitation wash dispensers are always empty. Gross.
You make it back to your camp. Somebody asks how you’re doing. “Not good,” is about all you can muster. You receive a hug. It makes you feel a little better.
You walk up to Center Camp to watch somebody from your camp perform. It’s a good show, but you’re still convinced you’re not on the same wavelength with everybody else. You feel disconnected. You’re convinced you’re a beacon of awkwardness. They’re enjoying themselves so much more than you are. You’re sure this is how it will be for the rest of the week. You decide to go to bed and stay there until the end of Burning Man, if possible.
You leave Center Camp alone. You feel safe hiding in the darkness and knowing that none of the strangers you pass can see your dour expression. How would they react if they knew you were miserable?
A stranger whose face you never see walks up to you and gives you a hug.
“Cheer up, man, you’re beautiful.”
Sleep does not come easily.
You wake up. Fuck. You’re still here. It’s so fucking hot. God damn it, why didn’t you take a normal vacation? God damn it. “Fuck you, sun, you’re not cooking me out of my tent today.” Fuck. Fuck!
You spend the afternoon laying in your tent, desperately resisting your bladder’s demands. God, is this what your entire week is going to be like? Everybody said this was one of the greatest things ever, and all you’ve gotten from it were hangnails, body odor, and a sense of social disconnection. And you’re fucking stuck here without any means of escape. Why did you agree to this?
It would be so easy to die. That would end it. You could zip up the flaps and turn your tent into a sauna, filling the fucking thing with moisture from your own body. You could dehydrate yourself to death before the day is through. Somebody has already died here this year, so how hard could it be? Seriously.
By mid-afternoon you’re coaxed out of your tent by your bladder and sanity. On the way back to your tent you hear, “Hey, come over here and sit down in the shade.” The invite makes you feel a little better. Your campmates want your company.
People scramble from the dome to see what’s going on outside. It’s a 20-story dust devil. You’re awestruck. Cameras appear. You think, “I wonder what it’s like in the middle of that.” Part of you wants to get on your bike ride into it. Another part wants nothing to do with the monster. Eventually, it makes its way off the playa and into the city, tearing up rooftops and throwing lawn chairs into the sky. Nature shows us her art piece for the year and it is breathtaking.
Later, you’re back in the dome when the wind picks up. Somebody outside yells, “Help!” Everyone rushes out to white-out conditions. The car port you’ve been using as a secondary shade structure is being lifted off the ground like a kite. Everybody grabs a leg and holds on. You realize that nature sent the dust devil as an omen and not an art piece. Somebody removes the fabric from the carport, leaving only its skeleton. This is the way it remains for the rest of the week.
Night falls and you’re feeling good. The awe and excitement from the afternoon seems to have charged your cells, and you’re ready for an adventure. You hit the playa with new energy. The strange and colorful art you’re encountering not only holds your interest, but invigorates you. “How the hell did they get this thing out here?” It’s a question you hear yourself asking over and over.
“Please, Man, let today be easier than yesterday.” The thought arrives upon waking. He’s out there looking over you. You can feel his presence today. How is that even possible? He’s only wood, nails, and neon.
You venture from your tent when the sun is high. The lines are growing at the Porta-Potties. The sanitary wash dispensers are empty. Gross.
You’re asked, “How are you feeling?”
Before you can stop yourself, you admit that you were in a bad place the day before. The admission pours out in detail and the other person listens with interest. You receive a hug. It’s nice, and it makes you feel better. You don’t feel as much like a social satellite. You catch yourself smiling and thinking how in any other situation your answer to the same question would’ve been a terse, “I’m all right.” What’s going on here?
Later, you’re asked, “Do you want to go get a Bloody Mary?”
Yes, most definitely, you do. Your group jumps on their bikes and heads across the playa to the other side of the city. You’re racing, you’re playing tag, you’re listening to somebody sing an “I Love Burning Man” song. You reach the Bloody Mary camp and fix yourself a drink from scratch. It’s delicious. You’re enjoying listening to people talk. You find yourself talking with people, too. Everybody is smiling, laughing, and playing.
You tour the Esplanade with the group. You ride the giant spinning teeter-totter and the crank-driven merry-go-round.
Night rolls in for exploration. Your group finds themselves on the playa on foot. You hop into a two-story art car and ride into the city. Somebody becomes bored with the ride and insists the group get off. You find yourself rather overtaken by the smell of gasoline, so you agree.
After a quick stop at the Porta-Potties, (no sanitary wash, gross), the group splits up to adventure. You encounter people juggling live fireworks. You watch Dr. Megavolt fire bolts of lightning from his hands. You chase green lasers across the playa. Finally, exhaustion takes over and you walk two miles back to your tent.
There’s only two days left and you haven’t seen half of the shit there is to see. It’s crunch time. You plan to go out to the Esplanade on foot after sundown and see as many of the attractions as you can, with or without your group.
The day is fucking hot and you spend much of it in your dome. Later, a group of you go over to Center Camp to watch and participate in some of the events there. Some of you decide to find alcoholic refreshment. Upon leaving Center Camp, you discover that one of the bikes has gone missing. Shit. Later, you’re told that this is typical of Friday and Saturday. “It’s when the tourists start showing up.”
You find yourself alone as the sun moves toward the far horizon. You’re on your bike, riding around the Esplanade and taking stock of the places you might like to visit after dark. You make it back to your camp in time for dinner. Afterward, you put on the alien-head costume that you had been anticipating wearing.
On your way out of the camp, you throw a large handful of glowsticks in your bag. Your intention is to give them to people who are wearing no lights, unaffectionately known as “darkwads,” due to the fact that they are nigh impossible to see at night. Simply put, they’re dangers to themselves and anybody on bikes.
You find that most of the people you encounter are very grateful for your gift. However, you approach one drunken, stumbling man on the Esplanade and when you offer him a glowstick, he vomits his response, “I don’ need dat SHIT!”
Before you can stop yourself you say, “Hey, if you want to get hit by a car that’s your own fucking business.” You contemplate asking the next biker you see to run directly into the drunken darkwad piece of shit. You then realize that your response to his verbal attack was very different from your typical behavior. Again, what’s going on here? Was this The Man’s doing? You feel freedom in your new behavior. You laugh.
You wander the night and chat with people you will never see again. Everybody is your friend. People want to talk to you and to be nice to you. In turn, you want to be nice to other people. Your smile beams against your mask. People can still see it in your eyes and they reciprocate.
You stop into a club and dance until your lungs hurt. You sit down next to a stranger who suggests you take the mask off so you can breathe more easily. Another stranger approaches the both of you and asks what time it is.
You respond, “Night time.”
Your new friends laugh.
Fuck, it’s hot. The sun doesn’t want you to rest. It wants you to wake up and live. It wants you to feel the energy that resonates off of every person you encounter.
You climb out of your tent and head to the Porta-Potties. On the way there you can see the energy in the people you pass. Their expressions, their body language, their entire selves vibrate with excitement and anticipation. You notice you’re feeling it, too.
The sanitary wash dispensers are empty, but somebody has put out their own bottle for everybody to share. You think about the generosity of the people here and how it’s so unlike it is in the real world. The simple act of giving is its own reward. Knowing you’ve done something good and helpful for somebody else makes you happy, even if you never get to meet that somebody.
People approach you on the street and offer you fruit. You stop your bike and gladly accept. People with squirt-guns approach you and offer to spray cold water on you. You gladly accept, riding your bike around and around them, laughing as it turns into a game.
You are given the task of keeping a friend occupied while a surprise un-birthday party is put together for him at Center Camp. Four of you wander the city and stop at Citrus Camp for a refreshing beverage. You stop and play on a trampoline you’d been eyeing all week, but you’re still not daring enough to do the flips you used to do as a child. Maybe next year.
Eventually, you find your way back to Center Camp. A short birthday celebration breaks out and the guest of honor shyly thanks everybody. A game of Set starts and you play along. Sharing these simple events is good. You realize that this calm, accepted feeling you’ve discovered in yourself can be held on to long after The Man has burned.
You review your week and how you gradually came to feel this way. You consider the possibility that the disconnection you felt earlier in the week was your own self-fulfilling prophesy. It was a falsehood that formed first in your mind and came true through your own actions. You believed that others were rejecting and disconnecting themselves from you, so you disconnected yourself from them.
My fear was my shadow and it was cast across others, obscuring their true faces.
You realize it’s almost over. You feel a little sad, as you’ve only just started to understand. You’re grateful for the small amount you’ve learned, though. You hope to take this lesson with you into the real world.
“We need to get out there right now or we’ll never be able to see it.”
The night arrives and your group is scrambling to get it together for the Burn. You race your bikes to Imagenode and park them there, making sure to lock them up. You follow your group as the entire city collects around The Man. Everybody crams together to assure themselves some modicum of visibility. Fire dancers perform, but you can’t see them due to numerous people who refuse to get off their bikes and sit the fuck down. The performance ends.
The Man’s arms erupt with fireworks, and the crowd roars! Soon, fire engulfs him and he collapses. The crowd roars again! People gather around the ashes and watch the rest of the structure burn. It is an event that defies full description. While the act of burning down The Man sounded so mundane to you before you’d ever visited the event, the actual first-hand experience is breathtaking. The Man’s spirit is released from the wood and neon and it enters everybody on the playa. It’s an event that fills every spectator with life and happiness that is immediately experienced through each other.
The Esplanade is supercharged. So much laughter and joy. So many people dancing and playing. It’s unreal. You get caught up in it.
Now that The Man is gone, you get lost in the city. His physical presence was always a good gauge of direction. The entire event gets turned upside-down without him. People compound the chaos by taking down the street signs. The city turns strange and mysterious and sometimes you wonder if you’re ever going to find your camp again. The adventure exhilarates you.
During the day you visit your friends, some of them temporary, to say, “See you next year.”
After your trailer is packed and the sun is setting, the group wanders out to watch the Temple burn. It’s bittersweet and a little somber. There are only mild cheers when parts of it collapse into ashes.
The group goes back to their vehicles and head off toward the real world. The wheels kick up playa dust again, but you can’t smell it. You’ve become integrated.